Ali Larijani, who holds the record for longest-serving Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, has now once again thrown his hat into the ring for the presidency.
Before now only Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has succeeded in being elevated from the Speaker’s chair to Iran’s top executive role. But in many respects Larijani’s behavior has mirrored the ex-premier’s over the past 20 years, and he is thought in some circles to be among the few with a fighting chance in the June election.
Larijani has long strived to cleave an independent path for himself among Iran’s various political factions. But he still faces a difficult road ahead, due to the unprecedented IRGC presence in the 2021 race and the fact that Iran’s conservatives have mainly thrown their weight behind chief justice Ebrahim Raeesi.
The lack of a dedicated voter base will therefore be Larijani's chief obstacle if he passes vetting by the Guardian Council. The position of so-called “moderate conservatives” has been dealt a severe blow by the undermining of the JCPOA.
A group of reformists have expressed a desire for a coalition with Larijani. But his own position at the highest tier of the system makes it difficult for him to practically form such an alliance. Meanwhile, the Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Executives of Construction) Party actively supports him, but some reformist figures including Mostafa Tajzadeh and Abdol Wahed Mousavi Lari have denounced this as political suicide.
The release of Zarif's damaging interview tape in late April also showed a shift in the goalposts. This presidential election revolves around who will and will not be tolerated by Iran’s powerful unelected establishment. Even someone like Larijani, who is trusted by Ayatollah Khamenei but has maintained a moderate stance, may end up seeing his campaign sabotaged.
Another factor in Larijani's calculations is the role of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the upcoming campaign season. Even if disqualified himself, Ahmadinejad will try to influence the election as an external element, and Larijani is unlikely to be spared the sting of his public proclamations.
Larijani’s personal bearing is also not especially attractive. Unlike Ahmadinejad, he has adopted a proud, aloof public posture that is unlikely to resonate with voters. He speaks eloquently, but may not be able to hold his own in pre-election debates.
Despite this, presence may go some way to undermine a decisive victory by Ebrahim Raeesi. Both candidates are past electoral losers, but despite being nominated as a candidate for the Principlists' Coordination Council in 2005, Larijani won only 1.7 million votes or about six percent of the total, compared to Raeesi’s 16 million in 2015.
Certain conditions prevail in each presidential election period. The situation this time around may be different if a bipolar situation arises. It is also possible that due to the low expected turnout, only two candidates will be selected to run this time.
Representative Turned Target of the Religious Right Wing
Despite his avowedly moderate stance, Larijani has previously shown a clear affiliation with the country’s more deeply-religious, sometimes extreme conservative factions in his positions, character and methods.
During his tenure as the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), this institution came to be considered an extension of the fanatical conservative pushback against the government of Seyed Mohammad Khatami. Reformist politician Ahmad Pournejati claimed that Ali Larijani even met personally with then-intelligence minister before producing the incendiary TV show Hoviat (Identity), which openly criticized the Khatami administration.
Larijani, however, has insisted that he has change and diversity on his political agenda as much as he does on his CV. The spark of change may have come from the first term of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when he took charge of the nuclear negotiations as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
Larijani's efforts to resolve the nuclear issue and present a modality initiative brought Iran to the brink of reaching an agreement with Europe and the United States. But after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entered the second half of his first term and came to see Larijani as potential rival, he fired him to replace him with Saeed Jalili. Later, it was said that Larijani had resigned from the post himself.
From then on, Larijani gradually moved toward the more moderate end of Iran’s political spectrum. This in turn allowed him to to compete with some other well-established conservatives such as Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, whom he defeated by 160 votes to 50 during elections for the presidium of the eighth parliament.
In the ninth parliamentary elections in 2012, Larijani ran for Qom and strengthened the base of support for so-called moderate conservatives. But after the protests in 2009, some principalists close to the Supreme Leader attacked Larijani as well as Ahmadinejad. They accused him of supporting Mir Hossein Mousavi in the presidential election alongside such figures as Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, who had congratulated Mousavi on winning on the day of the vote.